Re:Altitude and sea horses

Pete Giwojna

Dear Chef:

Don’t panic! It’s not a usual for new arrivals to take a week or two to make the adjustment to strange new surroundings before they settle down and resume their normal feeding habits. For this reason, it is a common practice to provide newcomers with choice live foods for the first few days after they are introduced into their new home, in order to help ease the transition to the strange environment. The live foods keep them eating well and help ease the stress involved with long-distance shipping and adapting to new conditions. Captive-bred-and-raised seahorses will normally resumes feeding on quality frozen Mysis shortly after they start to feel at home in your aquarium.

You mentioned that your new Hippocampus erectus were raised eating live pods; in that case, they are bound to have a preference for live copepods and amphipods initially and you may have to patiently wean them back onto frozen foods again. As long as they do not look emaciated (i.e., their belly plates or abdomens are not "pinched in" or "sunken in") and they are producing normal fecal pellets, then they are still getting enough to eat by scrounging up the amphipods in your Biocube. Talk to the breeder that you obtained the seahorses from about the items they are accustomed to eating and then try to obtain the very same brand and size of those food items to offer to the ponies in your aquarium. Find out what type of Mysis, ova and dead amphipods they are used to eating and do your best to provide them with those exact foods.

I do not believe that the altitude at your elevation is causing problems for your seahorses. The reduced atmospheric pressure at 7200 feet could conceivably cause their swim bladders to balloon somewhat or become somewhat hyperinflated, but that would give the seahorses positive buoyancy problems and you would notice that they are struggling against the tendency to float. If your ponies have been feeding on amphipods from the bottom of your tank, it doesn’t sound like they are having any buoyancy problems and I do not see how else the elevation might be affecting them…

However, I am concerned that you are keeping your new H. erectus seahorses in a 14-gallon Biocube. Your seahorses are one of the larger species that can grow to well over 8 inches in total length when fully grown and your Biocube is going to be too small for them in the long term. More importantly, it’s a shallow aquarium and will leave the seahorses (especially the male) prone to problems with gas bubble syndrome, which is a common affliction for seahorses in aquariums less than at least 20 inches deep.

Secondly, the Biocube aquariums are designed for reef keepers with the needs of live corals in mind. In other words, the Biocubes are designed to provide intense lighting, very strong water movement, and relatively warm water temperatures. That is simply not the best environment for seahorses, which prefer moderate lighting with dark areas they can move into as they desire, moderate water currents with some relatively slack water areas they can retreat to when necessary, and moderate water temperatures (optimal water temperature for H. erectus is 72°F-75°F). It’s quite possible that your yellow and orange seahorses have darkened in your aquarium in response to the intense lighting or in response to heat stress, if the tank is running on the warm side.

For instance, seahorses don’t like excessively bright light and they may go into hiding, seeking shaded areas amidst the rockwork, if the lighting is too intense for their comfort level. And the seahorses won’t look their best and brightest under high-intensity lighting such as metal halides because they will produce excess melanin (black pigment) in order to protect themselves against the harmful ultraviolet radiation they associate with intense light, and darken as a result. For instance, Jorge Gomezjurado reports "…I have exposed yellow seahorses to strong metal halide and they have turned black in few hours." (Jorge served as the head curator at the National Aquarium in Baltimore and operated Draco Marine, an aquaculture facility devoted to captive-bred-and-raised seahorses, so consider him to be an expert on the subject.) Some hobbyists who keep a selection of handpicked live corals with their seahorses like to use metal halides or other high-intensity lighting systems for the sake of the corals, but it would be a shame to display brightly colored seahorses under such strong lighting and cause them to darken.

Likewise, Chef, if the water movement in the Biocube is too overpowering, that alone can sometimes present seahorses from eating nonliving foods and effect their behavior in other ways as well. As with anything, too much of even a good thing can be undesirable, and too much current can overwhelm the limited swimming ability of Hippocampus. One indication that you may have too much water movement in your seahorse tank is if the seahorses are getting buffeted around by the currents, and whisked away uncontrollably when they tire of fighting the current. Or alternatively, they may stay perched in one place all the time and refuse to swim around and explore their tank for fear of getting swept away by the current if they relax their grip on their hitching posts. So you can get a pretty good gauge of how well the seahorses are able to cope with the water movement than their tank by observing how the current affects the swimming ability.

Likewise, if a mated pair of seahorses is consistently spilling eggs during the copulatory rise, that’s another pretty good indication that there may be too much turbulence or water movement in the upper reaches of their aquarium.

If the seahorses are having difficulty tracking their prey and eating because the current whisks the frozen Mysis past them too quickly to target it accurately and slurp it up, that’s another red flag. Often that situation can be corrected simply by adjusting the output from your filter to reduce the current during feeding time or turning it off altogether while the seahorses are eating.

If you can let me know what type of lighting you have in your 14-gallon Biocube, what the water pump for the filtration system is rated at (i.e., it’s output in gallons per hour), and what the water temperature is at during the day when the weather is warmest, I can advise you whether or not the water circulation, lighting, or water temperature is going to be problematic for your ponies and should be adjusted.

You need to be aware that heat stress is very debilitating for seahorses and is associated with many disease processes, such as tail rot and other bacterial infections.

Best of luck getting your new H. erectus seahorses to brighten up and resume their normal feeding habits, Chef!

Pete Giwojna

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